Friday, January 20, 2012

Back to Basics, Part II.

(Photo by Patrick Hoesley)

All right, class. I know it's been a while since I've taught your section, but I hope that you have taken opportunity to practice what we talked about last time.

Who here remembers what we talked about before? Yes, you in the second row.

That's right: how to select your first pipe. Now, how many of you have that pipe with you? Good! I see a lot of briars and corncobs. Oh, there are even a couple of meerschaum pipes in the class. Very well done.

When we last met, I was about to discuss how to select your tobacco. Let's talk a little about that now.

Bear in mind, this is how to select your first couple of blends, not how to select a tobacco once you've gotten the hang of pipe smoking. By that time, you will have ideally figured out what you like and how to select a new blend to try.

For now, let's worry about how to select those all-important first blends.

I am not going to tell you the one option that you must do, but rather show you your options, with their positive and negative aspects.

A lot of people out there recommend starting with so-called drug-store blends, such as Half & Half, Prince Albert, and Captain Black. These blends are all extremely popular and are enjoyed by many and smoked exclusively by some.

There are two principle components within your classic drug-store blend: Burley and Cavendish, typically black Cavendish.

Burley is a common blending component within other types of blends, used frequently to add a little depth and a lot of nicotine. This is a slow-burning tobacco with a mild flavor and a slightly aromatic room-note.

There are many benefits to starting with a Burley-based blend. The flavor will typically be mild and those around you often have nothing but positive things to say about the aroma.

With the benefits in mind, there are a few downsides. First, it has an extremely high nicotine content, so much so that many experienced pipe smokers still find the "Nic Hit" to be too much to handle. Additionally, the slow burning qualities of Burley means it is prone to bite those who try to smoke too quickly. As new pipesters tend to smoke faster than they really should, they are likely to experience tongue-bite, which very well might turn someone off of pipe smoking.

If you do want to start with Burley blends, I suggest Boswell's Premium Burley.

Next we come to Cavendish, the primary component of blends such as those from Captain Black.

For clarification, Cavendish is a method of preparation of tobacco, not a particular genus. The tobacco is pressed and then heated, so that it can ferment ad become sweet.

Cavendish is very similar to Burley in its benefits. It smells great to passers-by and has a sweet, yet mild, flavor. It also does not have the same amount of a Nic Hit as Burley.

It still has its downside. Cavendish, particularly black Cavendish, tends to be moist, which means that it can be difficult to keep lit if not properly dried and packed. Also, it has the potential of biting, a big downside for any beginner.

Allow me to say that the very first blend I smoked was composed primarily of Burley, though it was from a tobacconist and not a drug-store or supermarket. I enjoyed it very much, but it might not have been my first choice if I could choose again.

Another common starting point is the stronger aromatics. These, too, can often be found at drug-stores and often flavored with cherry, chocolate, or some other intense sweetener.

Here is where I am going to make my strongest recommendation to you, class. Avoid these for your first blend.

A lot of people assume that aromatics are perfect starting points because the smell sweet and taste a little like candy.

That's great and all, but the downsides so heavily outweigh the benefit that it truly isn't worth it. First off all, aromatics tend to be a lot wetter, which means that it will take a lot more lights to get the tobacco burning properly. This can lead to intense frustration, scorching the bowl of your pipe, and some serious tongue bite.

Aromatics also encourage people to smoke quickly, since they taste so sweet, which means your tongue will get burned. Bad news bears.

Finally, those cheaper and stronger aromatics will leave a serious ghost in your pipe. Ghosting is a pipe term for flavor left over in the bowl from a previous smoke. A lot of blends leave a little ghost, but some aromatics will make their presence known for dozens of bowls afterwards.

(Photo by Johnxfire)

Please, stay away from those aromatics during your early days. Remember, however, to take everything I say with a grain of salt. Pipe smoking is done to make you happy, and if you won't be happy without smoking aromatics, then, by all means, smoke them to your heart's delight!

If you want to go with aromatics, I would suggest Boswell's Christmas Cookie or Wilke No. 191.

(Photo by compujeramey)

Another option, rarely mentioned, is to start with what are considered the more difficult styles of tobacco: straight Virginias and Englishes.

Virginias are wonderful. Their tastes are sweet; they are simple; they are straightforward; the are aromatic in their own right, yet sophisticated.

One caveat, class: avoid flakes. For now, take care to only get ribbon or shag cut Virginias.

Ribbon style tobacco is tobacco that hat been cut into very, very thin strips, normally between 1/16" and 3/32" wide, and literally look like little ribbons of delicious flavor. Shag cut tobacco is an even finer version of a ribbon cut (I mean "fine" as in "thin", not as in "good").

The reason I advocate avoiding plugs, flakes, cakes, plugs, and ropes Virginia at this point is an issue of difficulty. First of all, tobacco in the above forms has to be prepared, something that normally involves cutting, rubbing, slicing and dicing, or some method that is more time consuming than most novices care to do. Additionally, these forms lend themselves to smoking hot and giving a nicotine kick.

If you want to go with a Virginia for your first tobacco, I recommend McClelland 5100 or McCranie's Red Ribbon.

Now come English blends.

Let's start with the downsides of English blends. Well, isn't that the damnedest thing? I can't really think of any!

Okay, fine. I don't want to sound biased.

Englishes do not have the most pleasant aroma for some people, and the acceptance of close friends and family can be a big factor when you first start smoking. Also, the flavors tend to be more subtle and complex; it takes more thought, more examination, and a slower pace to fully appreciate the blends.

Once you get past those small issues, however, Englishes are wonderful. They tend not to bite as often as other styles, they don't get boring as quickly, since their flavors continue to change as your taste-buds improve, and they are perfect for around campfires.

You can probably tell where my bias lies and what I would suggest starting with. It is controversial to suggest starting with Englishes, as they are often thought of as the most advanced style of tobacco. I say to go for it! If you start learning to appreciate the complex blends early, then you will be able to be a far more discerning pipe smoker.

Once again, though, I return to my familiar mantra: do what makes you happy.

All of my advice could be perfect, which I'm sure it isn't, but it still comes down to personal preference. You have my suggestions, now enjoy your pipe!

That's your homework for today. Enjoy your pipe. Maybe write down a couple of notes about what you taste in your tobacco, what you experience.

Are they any questions, class?

Yes, you.

Ah, great question: accessories for pipes.


Oh! I guess I'm more long winded than I thought. That will have to wait for next time!


  1. You mention tongue bite and tongue burn. Is there a difference? What are the symptoms? How long do they last? Are there remedies?


  2. Clem,

    Great questions!

    First of all, tongue bite is tongue burn, though the first phrase is far more common.

    The symptoms include pain and irritation on the tongue. This normally comes from smoking tobacco that is too moist or poorly packed, or simply smoking too quickly. Sometimes it results in minor inflammation of certain areas of the tongue. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. You are inhaling (even if only into the mouth) the smoke from burning leaves, which, if smoked too quickly, can be very hot on your tongue, resulting in a slight burn.

    There are remedies; if there weren't, I doubt many people would keep smoking pipes. The best advice is to take your time while puffing and not to rush things. If you have to relight your pipe, that's not a problem at all! Some people have also found relief by using an oral rinse called "Biotene", while others recommend drinking water or wine or some other liquid while smoking. Naturally, you don't drink with the smoke in your mouth, but occasionally in between puffs.

    My main suggestion is just to take your time smoking and not to pack your tobacco too tightly. I hope this answered your questions! If not, please feel free to contact me again and I will try again!

  3. Somewhere on the internet I'd read that tongue bite was due to the alkalinity of the tobacco whereas tongue burn was due to heat. But I'm not finding much information written on this topic. I read with interest your exchange last October/November with Robbert as the two of you looked for authoritative information. It seems too bad that little seems to be available other than the 1965 surgeon general report you both mentioned.

    Contributors to various pipe-related forums suggest that they have remedies but they don't say what, or at least I haven't found it if this topic's been discussed.

    Thanks for Pipe School. I'll try Biotene.


  4. Thank you for the comments.

    It's amazing how, sometimes, despite the enormous intelligence and interest in the pipe community, solid answers are so difficult to find.

    Also, thank you for reminding me about that conversation with Robbert. I must find the chance to continue that soon.

    Let me know how Biotene works for you. I've never suffered too badly from tongue bite, but I would like to know if that is successful and impacts flavor in any way.